Another year, another holiday picture from Woody Allen. To Rome With Love, the 42nd movie he has directed, arrives with the reassuring predictability of a postcard sent from an old relative on an annual cruise. But it also features Allen’s first screen appearance since Scoop (2006) in a hammy supporting role as Jerry, a retired opera director visiting his daughter in Italy. Like an old rocker playing his hits, Woody indulges in a septuagenarian send-up of his classic nebbish persona. We first see him as an apoplectic, white-knuckled flyer, bracing himself for imminent death as his flight to Rome hits a spot of turbulence. These days, however, that image could not be further from the truth. After shooting eight movies in Europe, the artist formerly known as Manhattan’s neurotic agoraphobe is now the happy tourist auteur.
Allen’s role as a filmmaker-in-exile was born of necessity. As U.S. financing for his films dried up, he found fresh patronage from producers in Europe, where his films consistently do better than in North America. Leaving New York to film in foreign capitals has boosted Woody’s career like a hit of Viagra. Match Point (2005), the first of three movies filmed in London, was his biggest success in two decades; the director, usually his own worst critic, called it his best movie. Since then, he scored a bull’s eye with Vicky Cristina Barcelona, matching Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem as fiery Latin lovers. And last year’s Oscar-winning reverie, Midnight in Paris, became his top-grossing film, displacing Hannah and Her Sisters with a worldwide take of $150 million.
Allen, 76, may have made his name with misanthropic wit, but his recent work is suffused with romance and whimsy. He’s developed a formula: young Americans visiting a European city fall in and out of love, tumbling through rabbit-hole intrigues with the locals, while the ultimate object of desire is the city itself, lushly photographed from all its best angles. Each movie becomes a valentine to its charismatic location, and to the passing parade of talent that catches the director’s eye—from Scarlett Johansson to Canadians Ellen Page and Alison Pill, who both star in To Rome With Love. “There’s a whole new generation that’s discovered Woody Allen,” says Tom Bernard, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, his U.S. distributor. “Now it’s not just the older Jewish Upper West Side audience. A month into the release of Midnight in Paris, it was a teenage and twentysomething date movie.”
Actors are lining up to work with Allen, who pays his entire cast union scale, including stars who usually demand millions more. His scripts are often facile and stocked with recycled tropes—frustrated writers, pushy prostitutes, magic portals—but even at his most shameless, as he mixes casting and location with casual genius, he can hit upon real chemistry. Fluidly prolific, Woody is like an old musician pulling notes out of the air without bothering to discriminate between banality and brilliance.
Unlike Midnight in Paris, To Rome With Love lacks a high-concept hook, but is no less fanciful. It unfolds as a loose confection of four separate narratives, slapped together like flavours of gelato. A timid young Italian is waylaid by a hooker (Cruz) while his wife gets lost and stumbles into the arms of an Italian screen legend. A tourist (Pill) falls for the son of an opera-singing Italian mortician, setting up a scenerio of Meet the Parents (Allen and Judy Davis). In a Fellini-like fantasy, an ordinary man (Roberto Benigni) is mysteriously mobbed by hordes of paparazzi. And a famous architect revisiting Rome (Alec Baldwin) sees his former self in a young fan (Jesse Eisenberg). As the fan betrays his girl (Greta Gerwig) for her flirty best friend (Page), a self-obsessed actress, Baldwin keeps popping up with sage advice like Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. Though packaged with tourist clichés, Allen’s Roman holiday captures the city’s amber light and lyrical chaos. His next stop is on American soil, where he will make a movie with Baldwin and Cate Blanchett in San Francisco. It’s not Manhattan, but it’s a fresh destination with a photogenic bridge.
Read Brian D. Johnson’s review of To Rome With Love right here.